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Discovered: Ants Use Tiny 'Toilets'

Feb 23, 2015 04:09 PM EST
blakc garden ants
(Photo : Flickr: Lennart Tange)

It turns out that ants don't poop where they please. New research has determined that ant colonies have actual "bathroom habitats," which the most timid of ants regularly clean and organize to keep rates of bacterial infection at a bare minimum. 

That's' at least according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One which details how researchers traced when and where ants chose to defecate when inside.

The common idea of ants is that they are more like tiny automatons than individuals - small components to a greater whole. Ant colonies, then, could best be described as the individual, with different nests boasting different collective personalities.

However, past research has also shown that insects boast their own distinct (albeit simple) personality traits as well, with some proving more adventuresome or even cleaner than others.

Research lead Tomer Czaczkes, from the University of Regensburg, recently explained to National Geographic that this even goes for ants.

"If I were forced to choose, I would say that the mostly inactive ants in the nest simply do not want to leave the nest, as this would be dangerous," he told the magazine.

Instead, he adds, these timid ants work to keep the colony's many tunnels clean. Piles of waste are then consolidated into small corners, to which other ants will continue to flock to when nature calls - as opposed to simply defecating on the floor. (Scroll to read on...)

Black garden ant (Lasius niger) tending their queen and her brood. You wont see any of these ants pooping anywhere near here, for fear of harming the center of their hive.
(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Pan weterynarz) Black garden ants (Lasius niger) tending to their queen and her brood. You wont see any of these ants pooping anywhere near here, for fear of harming the center of their hive.

Czaczkes is quick to add, however, that we should be hesitant about "anthropomorphizing" - associating this behavior with human traits. Keeping most ant tunnels clean of waste is clearly a survival tactic as well, as it keeps potentially harmful microbial growth isolated to "toilet" areas.

So how was this determined? Colored poop, of course!

Czaczkes and his colleagues experimented with 21 small, lab-grown colonies of the common black garden ant (Lasius niger). These ants were selectively fed a sugar solution with either a red or blue dye that would color their feces (frass). And while foraging ants would often defecate outside, two months of nature calling quickly showed clear patterns of colored frass in the nests, which was pilled or collected in clear "toilet" areas.

Interestingly, the researchers note that not all colony species behave in this way. Honeybees, for instance, go to great lengths to remove feces from their hives, keeping their living spaces spick-and-span. Most ant species, including the black garden ant, likewise work to remove the deceased from their nest, ensuring that mortality rates remain low.

So why is the poop kept inside? The study authors aren't really sure, but they propose that it must offer some kind of benefit to the colony as a whole.

Of course, as it always is with new discoveries, much more work will need to be done.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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